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The election question is Y, especially for Franken

One of the biggest unknowns in this election is what Generation Y voters will do.

Generation Y represents those born between 1982 and 1994. While polls don’t call them out specifically, the younger part of the 18- to 34-year-old spectrum will be the one that keeps everyone wondering.

Whatever you call them,  those 18 to 24 who are voting in their first or second presidential election are in many ways the ultimate wild card in Minnesota. In 2004, Minnesota led the country in youth turnout with 69 percent of that age group voting.

Two recent polls in Minnesota illustrate the challenge in figuring out this group of voters.

In last week’s Survey USA poll, Sen. Barack Obama leads Sen. John McCain by 16 points among 18-34 year olds and Al Franken leads Sen. Norm Coleman by 15 points. But the Star Tribune’s Minnesota Poll, released Sunday, says that McCain and Obama are tied among voters of that age group, and Coleman holds a slight lead. What gives?

Without starting in on a rip of the Star Tribune methodology, the truth is that this group of voters is going to be very tough to predict. Think cell phones, technology and turnout.

The highest turnout nationally for 18-34 year olds was nearly 50 percent in 1992 and could be directly attributed to the Bill Clinton-Al Gore focus on college campuses. Since then, college campuses have remained a high priority for presidential campaigns. However, since 1992, rates of voting have fallen, and the use of the Internet has risen.

This year, the confluence of the Internet, text messaging and social networking is a major focus of campaigns. It’s just not clear what kind of impact that new factor will have for either party. The deluge of web-only ads and rumors and the increased investment online by the candidates is one factor that each is counting on to make a difference.

Franken has a better online presence in Minnesota’s Senate race, and one measurement on Facebook shows that Franken has more than five times the supporters that Coleman does. Franken’s campaign has made great strides, according to polls and buzz around town. One factor that has been a drag on the Franken buzz has been negative stories on blogs and the scrutiny of previous writings and tax issues. According to an analysis of blog mentions, blog postings mentioning Franken have been at lower levels in recent weeks. That’s likely because he hasn’t had any major gaffes or bad news lately, which allows him to focus on Coleman and gives his followers hope.

Recent polls put the race at a dead heat, and the Star Tribune poll is within the margin of error. All of which is perplexing, considering that McCain also has tightened the race with Sen. Barack Obama – a race that is being measured online daily.

Obama’s fundraising online and his savvy use of the text message to announce Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate are the types of tactics that could mean the difference. Franken is trying to do the same, and when it comes to such modern tools as YouTube and social networking, he seems a few steps ahead of Coleman.

Franken was early to the web, and seems to have maintained a lead over Coleman. For instance, Franken has clear links to social networking sites on his page, while Coleman’s main source of new technology is a blog.

Obama’s chances for success are one thing, but it is Franken whose political life may depend on these younger voters. Franken will simply have more votes to make up because of a poor showing in other demographic groups.

It matters more to Franken than Obama because Franken needs coattails from the presidential race, especially in Minnesota and especially among these younger voters. Obama is expected to get a huge boost among voters in this age group, but there are other groups nationally that have opportunities for electoral growth with Obama – most notably African-Americans.

Here in Minnesota, when 18- to 24-year-olds turn out, they have made history. Think 1998, when Jesse Ventura did well among the 40 percent of young voters who came out, an unusually high number for a non-presidential year.

Historical data, however, aren’t clearly delineated in polling of young voters in Minnesota. A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll says Obama holds a 23-point lead among likely young voters nationally. That is the kind of gap that Franken needs to make up to overcome the high turnout and the possibility of losing the vote among women and older voters. 

If Obama and the Democrats can increase turnout significantly among young voters, Franken could squeak through with a victory.

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